A reader quotes Exodus 34:7: “…visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children, and upon the children’s  children, unto the third and to the fourth generation”, and observes, I have always thought this seemed unfair, as sometimes there are members of a family who worship God and others of the family do not. Comparing  Exodus 34:7 with 2 Kings 14:6, the latter seems much preferable when everyone shall be dealt with according to their own sins.

We do not doubt for a moment our reader’s love of God or His Word, but it is perhaps an unfortunate expression to speak of preferring one declaration of our God  to another. If verses seem in conflict, or present surface impression of unfairness then we must seek to reconcile the conflict, if we can, and understand what is being taught, or what other Scripture might more clearly explain the apparent unfairness.

2 Kings 14:6 declares, “But the children of the murderers (of his father, King Joash) he (Amaziah)  slew not: according unto that which is written in the book of the law of Moses, wherein the LORD commanded,  saying, The fathers shall not be put to death  for the children, nor the children be put to death for  the fathers; but every man shall be put to death for  his own sin.” The quotation is from Deuteronomy  24:16 where the context accords precisely with the  sentiments of our reader. Israel is enjoined in this  chapter to act not merely with scrupulous fairness to  others, but to go beyond and make real concessions  to assist the “poor and needy” as well as the stranger,  the fatherless and the widow, remembering their  own former state as slaves in Egypt and so being  all the more compassionate to others.

Other well-known passages of Scripture reflect this divine principle that each individual is responsible  for his own actions and the consequences which  follow. Our first example is Jeremiah 31:29–30: “In  those days they shall say no more, The fathers have eaten a sour grape, and the children’s teeth are set on  edge. But every one shall die for his own iniquity: every man that eateth the sour grape, his teeth shall be set on edge.”

The principle is set forward even more explicitly  by Ezekiel. In our public lectures, we quote Ezekiel  18:4 “the soul that sinneth, it shall die” against the  church doctrine of the immortality of the soul. We  point out that clearly the soul is subject to death. But though true, that is not the prophet’s point. The  point of the verse is to say that the particular soul or  person who sins, and not any other, shall die. Verse  20 makes this point even more clearly: “The soul  that sinneth, it shall die. The son shall not bear the  iniquity of the father, neither shall the father bear  the iniquity of the son: the righteousness of the  righteous shall be upon him, and the wickedness  of the wicked shall be upon him.”

So we can clearly see that the Father holds each  person accountable for his own sins and not those of  another. This accords entirely with what we would  expect and what seems “fair”. What are we to make  then of Exodus 34:7 which gives a surface appearance of unfairness. Well, we have to say that God is  not inconsistent. He does not state a principle and  then flatly contradict it. He expects us to interpret  Scripture in accordance with what He has revealed  of Himself and His principles. So surely we are  intended to understand that God will only visit  “the iniquity of the fathers upon the children…”  when the children have followed their fathers in  iniquity. In Deuteronomy, Moses repeats to Israel  the ten commandments. And in Deuteronomy 5:9,  where the second commandment is outlined, we  read: “Thou shalt not bow down thyself unto them  (graven images), nor serve them: for I the LORD  thy God am a jealous God, visiting the iniquity of  the fathers upon the children unto the third and  fourth generation of them that hate me.” Here  what is implied, but left unsaid in Exodus 34 is  made plain.

God always acts consistently with His declaration of Himself. In all our reading of Scripture we  need to bear this well in mind.